Monday, March 26, 2007

reading ease of YA novels

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing—Traitor to the Nation, by M. T. Anderson is a challenging read on many accounts. To start reading without benefit of literary reviews, it takes many pages to get grounded in the story. Is it a futuristic, or fantasy novel? People who are members of a curious enterprise called The Novanglian College of Lucidity, ‘devoted to divining the secrets of the universe,’ and called only by digital representations, 03-01, 07-04—that give some measure of a person’s social standing and his profession—what’s going on here? What period of time are we in?

A first clue, or not, is that the language seems a sort of archaic English. Gradually the reader learns the setting is Colonial times, near Boston. At the beginning of the story, the main character is an African boy, named Octavian Nothing. The college purchased him and his mother, an African Princess, in the slave market, to be studied for the characteristics of their race. Can they learn Western music? How much of what they eat is converted to energy, to waste? These and other seemingly banal quests for knowledge leave the reader questioning the mental capacity of the college’s intellects.

Gradually, possible story themes emerge, of how unenlightened the social, philosophical, and scientific thought might have been in some circles of Revolutionary-era America, and particularly how unenlightened it was toward African slaves. It might not have been as harsh as in the more agrarian South, but seemed just as degrading.

The complete story of Octavian Nothing will be published in at least two volumes, reportedly, and this volume carries us up to Octavian’s participation in some early Revolutionary War clashes, where slaves were “loaned” by their owners to the Patriots for some of the heavy work of war, and to ‘excuse’ their own lack of participation.

Anderson has set in motion an ambitious story, which is not an easy read, but seems to have all the hallmarks of intensive research—from the language of the times, to the previously little known attitude of Colonial New England toward slavery. Apparently it has received favorable attention from young readers, and that renews confidence in youth’s abilities to wrestle with a difficult literary work, if it encompasses a good story.

To point out what is meant by difficult reading, a sample was taken at random, p.54, and analyzed with WORD’s grammar check, to find the following interesting statistics:

Words per sentence—40
Flesch Reading Ease—55 %
Flesch Kincaid Reading Level—11th Grade

As noted in earlier blogs, the scores for some bestselling authors and a Pulitzer Prize winner in a study have typically shown vocabularies suitable up to Grade 6, and Reading Ease up to 80 Percent. Perhaps Octavian’s reception is welcome news for writers of young people’s literature who might like to use more difficult but expressive language, and intricate plot development, but were held back by assumptions about youths.

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